When we went looking for leading women in Huron & Lambton Counties’ culinary community, we got some curious reactions. The fact is that women have been leaders in food agriculture, cuisine and hospitality in the area for decades. There are so many examples that we can’t possibly include them all. But let’s start at ground level, where the rich soil and kind winds have made Huron County nature’s vegetable basket.
Jackie Rowe says she started as “one woman in the kitchen,” with a business model to grow, process and distribute healthy Ontario garlic products. “The Garlic Box name and idea literally sprouted from the dirt in 1997, as a venue to help sell and stabilize our area-grown garlic. During this 20-year journey, we have transitioned to a small enterprise team, which processes more than 42 different SKUs of product made with local garlic and manages multiple distribution channels. We retail to more than 600 stores Canada-wide,” says Rowe from her Hensall headquarters on Highway 4 north of Exeter. Hensall was chosen for its close proximity to the garlic fields and to her home farm, and for business reasons. “Equally important is the hub of agri-business in Huron County with [affordable] taxes and good highways for transportation. For our value-added food business, it is the perfect incubating community to thrive in.”
As an early female businessperson in Huron, Rowe looked a bit further than Huron for women mentors. She says she has a trusted mentor in Marilyn Rootham of Rootham Gourmet Preserves in Guelph. More recently she has been following, digitally, Arlene Dickinson of CBC’s Dragon’s Den who is, as Rowe says, “bullish on Canadian health and food-based companies.”
Liz Ihrig, co-owner of Hessenland Country Inn near Zurich and St. Joseph, is an exceptional host/manager of the Inn’s special events, which also use the talents of her husband, chef and co-owner Frank Ihrig. The Hessenland serves unique wine dinners in the new vineyard, offers a fabulous outdoor Mongolian Grill each summer, and Liz and her team host dozens of weddings and other events which feature outstanding local food. She came to Huron from the corporate hotel world of Toronto, “first and foremost…[for] Frank” she says with a laugh. “It became apparent that this was not only a good move for my career but also to be with Frank and to start a life together working at Hessenland.”
Ihrig says she has been fortunate to have been guided in the business by her mother-in-law, Christa Ihrig. Christa and her late husband Ernst bought the Inn after immigrating to Canada from Germany. They turned it over to Liz and Frank, who have grown the business. Liz says she loves how community-minded Huron county citizens are. “Although it is such an expansive geographical area it is still a small town community ready to help and support you wherever and whenever.” Liz turns to local farmers for their produce and livestock, and also to share their knowledge.
Kathleen Sloan-McIntosh was also a newcomer to Huron County when she and her husband Ted McIntosh purchased the Admiral in 2005, re-opening it as Black Dog Village Pub & Bistro. She is certainly not a newcomer to the culinary scene. She is the author of nine cookbooks, and it was cookbook writing that brought the couple to Huron County. “We came to Bayfield to research a book I was working on — Simply the Best: Food & Wine from Ontario’s Finest Inns. We didn’t so much choose the village of Bayfield outright as the building chose us. It was hard work but we knew exactly what we wanted and we didn’t deviate from that vision: hold onto the original character as much as possible, reclaim any original materials wherever we could and ensure that the room had warmth and the charm that stems from a worn, but brushed up, patina,” she says.
Sloan-McIntosh (inspired by her own mother who was trained in England and worked in service as a professional cook and baker) established the menus for the Black Dog. “We like to think we take our inspiration from gastro-pubs in the U.K. but retain a thoroughly Canadian identity,” she says. She worked alongside her stepson Andrew, and kitchen staff, until she was able to step aside from the Bistro kitchen after a few years to open The Pantry. The shop offered a wide variety of cheeses, culinary supplies, fresh breads and more. Although very popular, it was closed to make room for an auxiliary kitchen for Black Dog, which remains one of the most popular Bistro’s in Huron County. Sloan-McIntosh’s daughter Alysa King now runs the front-of-house for Black Dog, as well as managing her own company, Bayfield Provisions.
Erryn Shephard technically does not operate in Huron County, her stellar kitchen is so close to the boundary of Huron and Lambton that she merits inclusion in this article. For 13 years Shephard has worked diligently with her long-time co-chef Ben Sandwith, and with passion for local food, at F.I.N.E. A Restaurant. While Erryn Shephard technically does not operate in Huron County, her stellar kitchen is so close to the boundary of Huron and Lambton that she merits inclusion in this article.
For 13 years Shephard has worked diligently with her long-time co-chef Ben Sandwith, and with passion for local food, at F.I.N.E. A Restaurant on Highway 21 in Grand Bend. Shephard was raised in the area and after training in the US (where she was the only female in her class) she decided to come home. “To have staying power is a tricky thing as this business is very fickle, but this is a great tourist area which benefits everyone here. We work very hard and put out a great product. Our motto is “focus and keep it simple.” I also think community involvement is huge, and I try to do what I can in that department, it all helps to get our name out there,” she says. F.I.N.E. supports breast cancer research with two evenings dedicated to fundraising. Shephard is also a strong supporter of local artists, showcasing their works in the restaurant. “We are like a little family here. The ability to swing with the food trends and listen to our market is very important. Because we are so small we can do lots of neat things. But still, in the end our customers have to like it. Ben and I were trained classically but this is a rural beach community so we try to keep it interesting and current, drawing on the knowledge that we have acquired over the years.”
Without a doubt Huron has strong women leading the culinary scene, with these being just a few examples. Shephard speaks for many when she says she would welcome being a mentor to others. “I am all for having females in this business. But it is a hard line … too long hours, weekends, holidays and just the physical nature of it doesn’t make it the most attractive choice. But having done this all my life, it has been so rewarding, and hatching the idea of my own little restaurant has been amazing.”
Tania Auger (By Bryan Lavery)
Tania Auger, a born bon vivant, knew from an early age that she and the hospitality business were made for each other. She arrived in London in the early 1980s and worked in a variety of notable restaurants as a bartender. In 1988 Auger leased the Ritz Hotel in Bayfield where she opened the Shark Inn. This paved the way for Auger to open the legendary 99 King a year later. Her success contributed to helping King Street evolve into the restaurant row it has become.
Auger hired uber-chef Jacqui Shantz for the long-run period. After a decade, in 1997, Auger returned to her hometown of Sarnia and opened several new enterprises, including the Smoked Oyster and Red Tango, a restaurant/nightclub. Following the events of September 11, 2001, Sarnia, like other Canadian border cities, felt the effects on trade. Undeterred, and never one to look backwards, Auger regrouped, conceived and conceptualized Lola’s Lounge on Christina Street in 2002. It continues to be an iconic downtown Sarnia hotspot 16 years later.